Sometimes when I think about the state of the world or some subset of it, like the economy, I try to draw parallels to movies or books or some other fictional simile. Fictional for the purpose of detaching myself from history’s reality which gives my mind greater freedom to accept the seemingly unreal as possible.
Such was the case today as I read Clay Shirky’s excellent Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, a truly worthwhile read analyzing the state of the newspaper business and drawing parallels to the state of the world before, during and after the arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press.
A couple of small excerpts that touch upon important concepts:
The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread.
This ring true for the Internet in ways that go far above and beyond “just” the newspaper industry: in a matter of slightly over a decade, the Web has gone from first-world curiosity to a crucial component of many global businesses and organizations. In a similar amount of time, we’ve collectively gone from an information hunger to an information overload for the average person.
More tellingly, between 1996 and 2009, we’ve gone from relatively stable industries to a world turned upside down. Industry after industry has needed to adopt to the digital age and industry after industry is being reluctant and stubborn for as long as it can. Look at music. Look at movies. Look at news. Look at books.
Plenty of industries won’t be replaced or revolutionized by the Internet, but even in the ones that are “safe” are likely to, at the very least, be significantly augmented by it. Amazon does not have any brick and mortar stores, yet nowadays they sell almost any product you can think of. Retailers still exist everywhere but they face strong competition from online stores such as Amazon, and have since started adopting additional means of drawing people to their stores (see Barnes & Nobles and Starbucks).
If you think your industry is completely safe from the powerful reach of the Internet, think again. You might give the example that the big three auto companies are failing for reasons that have nothing to do with the Web, but you’d be wrong: building inferior cars and having poor management are the root cause, to be sure, but the Web has made that information readily available to anyone, anywhere, who might be shopping for a new vehicle.
What the Web has done is make it incredibly easy for one to compare cars from manufacturer A to manufacturers B and C and beyond with just a few clicks online; when it’s that easy, the flaws or limitations in a car become anti-selling points to all customers, not just the ones who happen to have competing car dealerships in close vicinity.
Information is power, and the Web brings all information, everywhere. Companies and industries alike will need to adjust to that; the information publishing industry is simply one that is affected by it in every conceivable way, and so the effects are far more noticeable (and solutions to deal with it more dire).
Another excerpt from Shirky’s essay (emphasis added is mine):
Imagine, in 1996, asking some net-savvy soul to expound on the potential of craigslist, then a year old and not yet incorporated. The answer you’d almost certainly have gotten would be extrapolation: “Mailing lists can be powerful tools”, “Social effects are intertwining with digital networks”, blah blah blah. […]
In craigslist’s gradual shift from ‘interesting if minor’ to ‘essential and transformative’, there is one possible answer to the question “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, […]
If there was but one sentence any CEO of a company in an ailing industry should keep in mind at all times, it is the highlighted one: nothing will work, but everything might.
The threat for companies, and newspapers in particular, is not so much the Internet itself, it’s business models that are based on a pre-Internet age. The old models for business, for economy, for distribution of almost anything—they don’t work anymore.
Here’s how I interpret Shirky’s “Now is the time for experiments”: now is the time to start shedding ourselves of all the old ways of thinking about business, about how our economy works, about our existing models for everything, and instead to think in brand new ways that take the existence and power of the Internet into consideration from the get-go. Ask yourself not: “how does the Internet threaten me?” Instead, ask yourself: “how does the Internet fit into my ability to do business?”
The Web is here to stay, and it has upended many industries and redefined others. The old way of thinking is simply not compatible with the new age that we’ve already entered, and the more you cling to old models, the faster you’ll discover that they no longer work.